The Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinals feature three multiple-Fed Cup champions in seven-time winner Czech Republic, four-time winner Russia and three-time winner Italy as well as the re-emergence of 2002 champions Slovak Republic, who is taking part in the final four of the competition for the first time since winning its sole Fed Cup crown 11 years ago.
We take a look at the finer details of this weekend’s ties, both to be played on clay, and where they might be won and lost.
Italy v Czech Republic
Venue: Circolo del Tennis Palermo,
Location: Palermo, Italy
Surface: Clay – outdoors
In the semifinal tie that looks set to garner the lion’s share of attention over the weekend, Italy has brought out the big guns for its clash with Czech Republic as experienced duo Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta return to Corrado Barazzutti’s team after missing Italy’s 3-2 first round win over USA.
Both played an integral part in Italy’s three Fed Cup triumphs in 2006, 2009 and 2010 and their inclusion means the hosts field the same team that lost 4-1 to Czech Republic in last year’s semifinals. The defending champions line up in similar fashion, with the exception of doubles world No. 4 Andrea Hlavackova, who is replaced by singles world No. 20 Klara Zakopalova. That leaves Lucie Hradecka as the lone doubles specialist in the team and splits up a partnership that is not only undefeated in Fed Cup, but also reached Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year. Should the fifth doubles rubber play a part in the tie, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will fancy their chances, particularly given that Vinci holds the record (18-0) for the most Fed Cup doubles rubbers without defeat.
Czech Republic remains undefeated in Fed Cup since its April 2010 defeat to Italy, and Petra Kvitova is a large part of the reason for Petr Pala's side's dominance having won 13 of her last 14 Fed Cup singles rubbers. The Italians, however, may have good reason to believe that they might have Kvitova’s number on the Palermo clay. While Sara Errani has lost all four of her singles meetings with the Czech No. 1, Roberta Vinci mastered the six-foot lefthander in straight sets in the final of the BNP Paribas Katowice Open in Poland last weekend and will be itching to deliver a repeat performance given the chance this weekend.
Schiavone, meanwhile, may be the Italian No. 3 but Barazzutti might be wise to name the former French Open champion as his No. 2 singles player this weekend. The 32-year-old has won all three of her previous meetings with Lucie Safarova without dropping a set, while Pennetta and Errani both have a losing record against Safarova on clay.
Russia v Slovak Republic
Venue: Sports Centre Krylatskoye
Location: Moscow, Russia
Surface: Clay – indoors
When Russia and Slovak Republic last met, all the way back in 2001, neither side had ever won a Fed Cup title. Fast forward 12 years and Russia has tallied up four titles to Slovak Republic’s single triumph in 2002, and while plenty else might have changed in that time there remains one constant. Daniela Hantuchova competed for Slovak Republic in that July 2001 tie in Bratislava, as she had two years earlier in the first meeting between the two nations, and the world No. 75 will be back to compete for her country again just shy of her 30th birthday as Slovak Republic looks to defeat Russia for the first time after two 3-2 defeats.
For starters, Matej Liptak’s side need a big performance from Dominika Cibulkova, and the world No. 15 will no doubt want one herself after succumbing to cramp and having to retire while leading Vesna Dolonc 65 54 during Slovak Republic’s ultimately straightforward first round win over Serbia. The diminutive 23-year-old holds a winning record against just one of the Russian team, Ekaterina Makarova, having bested the world No. 24 in Moscow in 2012 and Sydney this year. Chances of a dream victory surely rest on Cibulkova's shoulders.
Slovak No. 2 Magdalena Rybarikova has lost her last four Fed Cup rubbers, all doubles matches, and while ranked higher 30 spots higher than Hantuchova, may well be overlooked for singles in favour of the Fed Cup veteran, who scored two singles win against Serbia to help Slovak Republic into the semifinals.
Hantuchova holds a 5-2 advantage over Russian No. 1 Maria Kirilenko but is on the receiving end of a similar record against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, having lost five of her six encounters with the Russian No. 2.